How Western Kentucky forged USF's Willie Taggart

South Florida Bulls head coach Willie Taggart and South Florida Bulls cornerback Mazzi Wilkins (23) celebrate their victory over the UCF Knights at Bright House Networks Stadium in Orlando on Thursday, November 26, 2015. The USF Bulls celebrate defeating the UCF Knights 44-3. OCTAVIO JONES   |   Times 

South Florida Bulls head coach Willie Taggart and South Florida Bulls cornerback Mazzi Wilkins (23) celebrate their victory over the UCF Knights at Bright House Networks Stadium in Orlando on Thursday, November 26, 2015. The USF Bulls celebrate defeating the UCF Knights 44-3. OCTAVIO JONES | Times
Published Dec. 20, 2015


It is home to a bustling college and a Corvette plant, a modest-sized city in the Commonwealth's southern midsection. For those rearing families or retiring, they say Bowling Green, Ky. — with a population of around 60,000 — is tough to trump. The town square resembles something off a Norman Rockwell easel. The fall foliage is breathtaking.

"It's a great place to live," Willie Taggart said. "It's one of those places where you go and get there, and it'll trap you, it'll suck you in. You don't want to leave."

But leave he did. Three Decembers ago, Taggart, then Western Kentucky's football coach, bid farewell to his alma mater and employer for the chance to coach at USF, less than an hour from his hometown of Palmetto.

When he informed his WKU team, just before a bowl practice, Taggart needed several minutes to compose himself before getting the words out. When he did finally break the news, players left their seats in the Hilltoppers meeting room to hug their departing coach.

"It was like a morgue," said Bulls linebackers/special teams coach Raymond Woodie, in the room that day.

Yet in a sense, the departure was only physical. Ask Taggart and he'll tell you: Bowling Green remains embedded in his DNA. It's where he crossed manhood's threshold and found his vocation. It's a part of his past he readily embraces.

Rest assured, the city and school embrace him back. Do they ever.

"He would be the Michael Jordan of Bowling Green," said USF defensive backs coach Alonzo Hampton, who also served on Taggart's staff for two seasons at WKU.

"They love him. Just what he did as a player, and then when he came back (as head coach) he changed the whole mind-set, the attitude of the university. … Everybody knows Willie Taggart in Bowling Green."

• • •

Taggart would prefer the Miami Beach Bowl be about the program he has resuscitated instead of him. After a 1-3 start that appeared to leave Taggart's job status in serious peril, USF (8-4) has won seven of eight and evolved into arguably the American Athletic Conference's best team this side of Houston.

But someone pulling the strings of this bowl — owned by the AAC — put this Bulls-Hilltoppers matchup together, and it's naive to suggest they weren't aware it might prompt some to reflect on Taggart's impact in Bowling Green.

"It's almost like LeBron (James) and Ohio," USF running backs coach (and former Taggart college teammate) Donte Pimpleton said.

Yep, that's how big Willie Taggart is at Western Kentucky. It's as clear as the likeness of his retired jersey (No. 1) emblazoned on the side of L.T. Smith Stadium. So just what kind of emotions will be percolating when Taggart takes the Marlins Park field Monday?

"Honestly, I couldn't tell you that," he said. "I'll tell you that after the game. I've never been in that situation before. Right now I'm just preparing to win that game.

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"I'm sure there will be some emotions. I don't know what kind of emotions or how it will be, but it will be something."

Of course it will. No one questions Taggart's ability to compartmentalize, to spend an afternoon locked in on vanquishing WKU's pass-centric offense and securing a ninth win for the Bulls. The 39-year-old has invested way too much sweat equity into USF for anyone to suggest otherwise.

Yet no one expects him to muster a deep-seated hate for the guys on the other sideline — many of whom he recruited — or the program they represent. There's simply too much history — nearly two decades worth — for Taggart to remain totally detached.

"I tell everyone, everything about me is WKU," he said.

"If a book was written on Western Kentucky football," Hilltoppers athletic director Todd Stewart said, "there would be a very long chapter on Willie Taggart."

• • •

The genesis of Taggart's bond with Bowling Green is well-chronicled.

In the early 1990s, the Hilltoppers program was a Division I-AA bottom-feeder — four losing seasons in five years — on the brink of being shut down. Veteran coach Jack Harbaugh was beginning to run low on solutions. Not sons.

John, then an assistant at the University of Cincinnati, leaned on his contacts and collection of high school game tape to funnel players who might not have fit into UC's plans 215 miles south to his dad. Jim, then the Indianapolis Colts quarterback with a residence in Orlando, became certified as an NCAA volunteer assistant to help Jack recruit Central Florida.

When Jim first phoned Taggart, then a senior at Bradenton Manatee, Taggart thought it was a prank. Things got serious when he learned the Harbaughs — unlike most Division I programs recruiting Taggart — wanted him to play quarterback at the next level.

Taggart became Western Kentucky's starter immediately. On the second carry of his career, in an otherwise lopsided home loss to Murray State, he scored on a quarterback option.

Three years later, he finished his career with 3,997 rushing yards (then a Division I and I-AA record for quarterbacks), 77 total touchdowns, three winning seasons and a playoff berth.

"They were ready to close us down," Pimpleton said. "He came and got 'em going."

When Taggart's playing career ended, he stuck around and served as a Jack Harbaugh assistant for eight seasons.

By 2002, he was co-offensive coordinator for the Hilltoppers team that won the I-AA national championship.

Seven years after that, he was completing a three-year hitch on Jim Harbaugh's staff at Stanford when WKU, again wading in mediocrity after transitioning to I-A (Jack Harbaugh had long since retired), was seeking a coach.

• • •

Cue Act III of Taggart and the Hilltoppers. Assuming the reins of a program mired in a 20-game losing streak, Taggart had WKU bowl eligible by his second season and bowl bound by his third.

His prevailing mantra: "Just keep fighting and something's gonna break," Tampa Bay Buccaneers (and former WKU) running back Bobby Rainey said.

"I think what he brought that we really needed right away was confidence," said Stewart, the Hilltoppers' media relations chief at the time of Taggart's hiring.

"We were a program that lacked confidence on the field of play because of the losing, and even though we went 2-10 our first year, he always remained confident and he always projected that confidence.

"And I know that had a positive impact on our players. And he recruited at a high level, and then eventually we started winning. To me, that's really his biggest contribution: He established a winning culture here. We had back-to-back seven-win seasons, and that really got things going."

Consider those achievements, then ask yourself this: Who can reasonably suppress such a rich slice of his existence? Who can stow away such history in the recesses of his psyche without a bit of sentiment seeping through? Coaches, for one, who are forced to do it all the time.

Taggart likely will be no different. Flanked Monday afternoon by his latest football family, he'll try to wound the old one. This is coaching's business side.

The soft side undoubtedly will proceed it, when in the immediate aftermath he hugs Hilltopper players he recruited and coached.

Willie and Western. So much to embrace.

"It's my alma mater and (this game) is different I guess because of that and the relationships," Taggart said.

"But for me, personally, it's just keeping everything in perspective. I'm happy for Western and their success and where they're at, but I'm very happy and proud of the Bulls and where we're at and where we're going."

Contact Joey Knight at Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.